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    Caring too much about what other people think

    In the dying years of the twentieth century, and the first few decades of the twenty-first, a remarkable shift occured in the American psyche. This has been described by numerous scholars as the transition from a general concern with character, to a preoccupation with personality°. The somewhat simplified story goes like this: People used to be concerned about what kind of person they really were, deep down. Some scholars claim this was to do with a worry over how god would judge them, others refute that. Either way, what mattered was inside, what kind of person one knew oneself to be. As one century gave way to another, your (great)…

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    How not to get angry

    It is commonplace to bemoan the gradual slide of Western politics into mud-slinging and fear tactics, to complain about trolls and the general level of vitriol, to worry that we live in a world where anger gains a new level of respectability. I’m going to make the case that anger is enabled and exacerbated by a somewhat complex mental phenomenon which pervades all human culture. The best name we might give this phenomenon is essentialism, and it’s tricky to explain. Of course, if I’m to convince you of my idea, I’ll have to explain my conception of essentialism, so hold on tight. I’ll try to make the ride short and fun…

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    The fear of missing out

    Right now, at this very moment, in your nearest town or city there are people having fun. No matter whether it is late afternoon or early morning, somebody somewhere is doing something exciting, novel, or naughty. Indeed, across the world millions of people are doing things right this moment far more exciting than reading this blog. You are missing out. We live in a world of opportunity. Gone are the days when most people lived out their lives in a pattern predetermined by the nature of the small community into whose clutches they were born. We can choose to live our lives in myriad ways. We can choose to spend…

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    There are no souls

    My aunt died yesterday. Well, in fact she was my second cousin, once removed, but my mother’s family is very close and so, throughout my childhood, she and her family lived just tens of metres from us and I called her ‘aunt’. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, still I felt sad. I still feel sad as I write this knowing what her children must be going through. In one of those coincidences the vast universe creates, and which human beings find so uncanny, two days prior, as I walked along a beach in the Canary Islands, I heard a little boy ask his mother “Tengo un alma?”…

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    Our love of distraction is stealing our time

    We are all terrified of silence. Not just the sort of silence that is the absence of sound, but the sort of silence that takes shape when we sit in front of a blank screen, ready to write something from scratch. Or when we shut off the TV, and try to settle in front of a textbook to revise for an exam. Or when we sit down to work out which pension plan to get. We get an itchy, twitchy feeling at such times. Our minds start throwing out helpful thoughts like, “did you remember to turn the dryer on?” and “oh, isn’t this experience hard? I should tweet about…

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    Being mindful is great, but who is going to teach you?

    Last week, on a fine sunny day, I saw a woman teaching her grandson to ride a bike in the park. I say ‘teaching’ but in fact neither teaching nor learning were in evidence. She gave him no advice of any use other than ‘put your feet on the peddles and go’. She was patient and encouraging. Her love for the little boy was obvious to all who had eyes to see. But as a teacher of the fine art of bike riding, she was bloody dreadful. After quite some time, the little boy got off the bike rather angrily and said “you do it then!” There was a momentary…

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    How to design self-experiments

    A spirit of experimentation is afoot. Science has always given us great stories about people who experimented upon themselves. Whether we’re entertained by Santorio Santorio weighing his own poo, or by Albert Hofmann testing out LSD on himself, we could too easily come away with the idea that self-experimentation is dangerous, extreme, and just a touch silly. In the last few years, numerous popular self improvement writers like James Clear, Tim Ferriss, and Mark Sisson have been near the front of a movement. Thousands upon thousands of ordinary people geeks are running their own lives like science experiments in a common mission to make their lives better. Nowadays this activity…

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    Minimalism as the examined life

    A couple of thousand years ago, an uncompromising Athenian philosopher by the name of Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s a provocative idea. Similar sentiments surface and resurface across history, and across cultures. Perhaps we need to hear this message again and again precisely because we find it so hard to take on board. Perhaps, as Simon Longstaff has suggested, it is because living an examined life can be challenging that Socrates adopted such strident language. (Or perhaps that was the doing of one of his students. We’ll never know, as Socrates didn’t make free and loose with a pen.) Socrates’ message is as relevant…

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    Mindfulness meditation: Reinventing the wheel?

    “You’re just reinventing the wheel! This has all been said before! What’s the point?” Some people imagine that inspiration comes from nothing, that creativity is like a sort of psychological Big Bang. It doesn’t. It isn’t. Scientific ideas evolve over time, and they’re often based on earlier, non-scientific ideas, at least to start. Take the atomic theory — the idea that the stuff we see around us, be it water, tables, or cats, is made of little particles. The idea was first talked about in ancient Athens. But, and this is the crucial point, the ancient philosophers also had a bunch of other ideas about how the world works that…

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    Don’t wait on confidence

    You wake up, uncomfortable, to beeping sounds and urgent voices. “He’s awake!” There are voices. Hurried footsteps. You notice the uncomfortable tubes. You’re in hospital. Over the next hour you learn you’ve been suffering from a mysterious it-could-only-happen-in-Hollywood illness. You’re recovering now but you have completely forgotten who you are. You have simply no recollection of your previous life. You can still speak English but many commonplace things are now mysterious to you. All the same, you’ve not forgotten everything. For instance, you can still walk. People arrive and they say they’re your friends and relatives. Some of them do indeed bear a physical resemblance. They take you to an…